How to transform a failing institution

Following the University of East London’s shortlisting for University of the Year award at the Times Higher Education 2023 Awards, Dean Curtis offers advice for driving positive change

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Dean Curtis 's avatar
University of East London
4 Dec 2023
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We in higher education are in the business of change. For students, we offer life-changing education and experiences. With partners, we are part of a mutual transformation of pedagogy and practice, always striving to keep pace with a restless world. And at the institutional level, universities are often concerned with changing themselves in the spirit of constant improvement. However, a recent report by Paul Woodgates suggests that even though “almost all universities are running large numbers of complex change projects to transform what they do and how they are organised”, there is also a “common view that delivering change is a systemic weakness in universities”.

In 2018, the University of East London welcomed Amanda Broderick as vice-chancellor and president to tackle a difficult set of circumstances. Her leadership has successfully delivered a wholesale transformation, enabling the institution to not only survive but to flourish and thrive. Implementing our ambitious and innovative 10-year plan, Vision 2028, was a vital way of re-envisaging our role as a university on a global scale, driving innovation and a clear, strategic “road map” to tackle the challenges facing the communities we serve. Our goal is to break down the entrenched structural barriers to opportunity for students and graduates from under-represented backgrounds and to address economic and health inequalities wherever they are found.

But if it is strategy that makes transformations stick, as I believe, how can universities avoid the pitfalls that Woodgates highlights in his report, with changes that so often “take too long, cost too much and are too disruptive”? Below, I offer some provocations for leaders looking to transform their institutions.

Know where you are starting from and where you’ve been before

Change is not just about the endpoint. Each institution will have its own specific circumstances that require understanding before you can assess your next steps. Taking stock of where you are will reveal what needs fixing urgently, what can remain as it is and where you can begin to act for perhaps the first time.

In the first instance, leaders need to understand the financial position and market attractiveness of their institution. If transformation is required in this area, as was the case with the University of East London (UEL), then robust strategies are necessary to develop competitive positioning and strong financial viability, underpinned by an agile organisational mindset and a focus on sustainable growth. Steering a struggling institution to a safer financial territory is a difficult task that will require both tough and courageous decisions.

Institutional memory is a slippery thing, and there may be some colleagues in your university who feel that they have seen this all before and have no reason to trust that your efforts will be more successful than previous ones. Listen to their concerns, learn about what has and hasn’t worked in the past and make sure to meaningfully and visibly act on feedback.

Tell people what you’re doing, and why

There is a famous quote that those in the process of leading transformations would do well to remember: “People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” You can spend all the time you like on getting the communications right for any campaign of change, but if your strategy doesn’t involve the inclusion of colleagues throughout the entire process of planning and delivery, they are unlikely to get on board. Don’t keep people in the dark. Be honest about the decisions you are making and why. Repeat and reiterate as much as you can. And if you talk often about the values of your organisation, make sure that your decisions align with them – otherwise, people won’t take them (or you) seriously. You will be much less likely to face pushback on difficult decisions if you take people with you.

Having a strategy (and being vocal about it) isn’t just a way of keeping your organisation focused on shared goals, it’s also a way of underwriting that transformation with a sustainable credibility.

Think big and be bold

When implementing large-scale transformation, you must be prepared to rethink the most fundamental parts of your operation. Be prepared to go back to the drawing board and rip up and redesign every course, as we did at UEL in 2018, and to ask fundamental questions with an open mind. Be willing to do what most aren’t to drive positive change, and don’t underestimate the agility of your organisation when equipped with the right leadership and tools to transform.

In terms of partnerships, too, think big. If you have been vocal about your ambitions and strategy, you can build momentum and attract new and innovative partners who are as serious about making change as you are. Seek them out and be clear about why collaboration offers benefits.

Make sure you check in along the way

It has become a cliché for organisations to talk about “data-driven decision-making”, but that does not make it any less important. At the start of your transformation journey, you might not have all the data you need to inform your decisions; prioritising the collection of that information as you progress can help to safeguard your vision in the face of unexpected events. And you can be certain that they will occur: the world will continue to change at pace as you advance with your plans.

Having staging posts along the way to analyse your progress, seeking the views of your people and partners and course-correcting if necessary are vital to make sure you’re on the right track. They can also be valuable sources of motivation and reasons for celebration. This term, UEL published its first institutional impact report, providing colleagues and partners with a great overview of all our activity, the impact we are having through Vision 2028 and our ambitions for the next half of the strategy. Bringing to life the tangible positive impact their work is having on a local, national and international scale, not only gives due recognition to every colleague who plays their part, but also helps to build – perhaps restore – the pride they should rightly feel in changing lives and society for the better.

Dean Curtis is deputy vice-chancellor at the University of East London.

The University of East London has been shortlisted for the University of the Year award in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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